It was not just the axle cap of the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet that crew members were scrambling to fix in the pits during Sunday's race in New Hampshire, it was also the magic.

The magic, that is, that had carried Tony Stewart to the top of the standings during the pre-Chase portion of the Sprint Cup schedule but had wavered in recent weeks and appeared to be vanishing in Sunday's playoff-season opener in Loudon.

This weekend at Dover International Speedway, Stewart and his team will continue trying to patch up that magic and resuscitate their hopes for winning a Sprint Cup championship in their debut season.

"We had some definite lows (at New Hampshire) because of the mechanical issue with the car," Darian Grubb, crew chief for Stewart, said this week. "We'll just go to Dover...and try to get the win."

A win in Sunday's AAA 400 would be most welcome in the Stewart-Haas shop. It would be welcome for the points it would bring, but also for the emotional lift.

Emotional lifts had not been a problem around the Stewart-Haas operation for the first 22/36ths of the season. The team and its drivers were exceeding expectations on a weekly basis back then.

Nine times in the first 13 weeks of the season, Stewart finished in the top ten. And when he finished second at Dover in Week 13, he found himself on top of both the standings and the story-of-the-year list.

A week later at Pocono, Stewart won his first race as an owner/driver and the surge was on. He won twice more in the next eight races, and his average finish in his ten-race blitz was 3.6.

The dude was running away with the points lead.

In early August, after winning at Watkins Glen for his eighth top five in ten races, Stewart was asked if he was thinking championship.

His answer was wise and understandable. It was also prophetic.

"That's way too early to do that," Stewart said. "There's so much that can happen still. I feel like we're in a good shot to be a contender for it. I'm not sure I feel like we're a dominant contender yet. It's hard because there's so many good teams."

The next week, Stewart finished 17th at Michigan. It was his worst finish since May in the Coca Cola 600, and it was not a hiccup.

Stewart has not had a top-ten finish since.

At Dover this weekend, Stewart not only will be attempting to rediscover the success of his early season, but also be out to rediscover the success of his early career at the concrete, high-banked one-mile track.

The first twelve times Stewart raced at Dover, he had two victories and nine top-five finishes. Only once did he finish out of the top ten and he was eleventh that day in the spring of 2002.

In the past nine races, he has no victories, three DNFs and two top-ten finishes.

Perhaps the best news on that front is that his best finish at Dover in recent years came earlier this year when he was second.

After New Hampshire and his 14th-place finish there, some people were talking about how great it was that Stewart and his team were able to patch together a mediocre finish on a day that could have been disastrous.

They said that dropping from second in points to just sixth represented a moral victory.

Stewart was saying nothing. He dropped from sight after the race and left Grubb to try to put things in perspective.

"I haven't seen him yet," Grubb said postrace. "I'm sure he is upset, just as much as I am. He should be. We let him down. We have to assemble that car to the utmost of our abilities, and we missed it. We are a new organization. We are going to have to fix all those problems and keep getting stronger."

Stewart knows a thing or two about magic. He knows how temperamental it can be and how talking about it can upset it.

And he knows that what he needs to do at Dover is go out and re-establish it.
by Jim Pedley/Sporting News

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